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Despite confusion, new decree is in effect as fishing season begins

Charter fishing boats and sightseeing vessels in Leland Harbor. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
Charter fishing boats and sightseeing vessels in Leland Harbor. All boaters and fishers using 1836 Treaty Waters should now follow rules outlined in the 2023 Great Lakes Fishing Decree. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

Warm weather and no ice cover might lead to an earlier fishing season in northern Michigan.

Despite some confusion, this season will be the first fully under the 2023 Great Lakes Fishing Decree, an agreement between the U.S., the state of Michigan and five tribes — The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

A judge ordered the decree in August, but appeals from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe and a group of sport fishers are still pending.

Dave Caroffino helped negotiate the decree for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

He says those appeals haven’t changed the fact that the new decree is in effect this fishing season.

“People have fished the same way under the same regulations for 20 years. Well, things are different now,” he said. “So we need to kind of reset our expectations as to where we're going to be potentially seeing nets and how we need to fish in different areas.”

Caroffino says boaters and recreational fishers should familiarize themselves with new maps showing where commercial fishing is now allowed.

He says there are also updated flag markings for gill nets versus trap nets that recreators should learn before heading out on the lake.

Bill Rastetter is a tribal attorney for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He says even though the decree was ordered into effect last August, it didn’t mean tribal fishers could immediately start following it.

“So, in let’s say late August [or] September, if a tribal member were to ask us, ‘Well, can we take advantage of these opportunities under the new decree?’ Our response would’ve been, ‘No, wait a minute. There are steps that have to be made,’” Rastetter said.

Steps like updating tribal regulations in accordance with the decree and updating digital reporting systems.

Rastetter says all of that is in place now, and tribal fishers can start operating under the new decree as soon as the weather allows.

The decree hasn't been without controversy. But Caroffino, with the DNR, says he sees the disagreement as a sign of success.

"This is a compromise. All the parties ... are in a very difficult situation because we are trying to use the resource at the same time, sharing the waters, with different interests. No one is going to get everything they want," he said. "We've got two groups appealing that are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum because they don't like things in there. So, in a sense, you could argue that maybe means we got it right, because we found a middle ground."

The appeal process will continue to play its way out in the courts, but that’s not a fast process, says Caroffino.

“Nothing’s going to happen in the coming months that would result in a decision that could change … what people can expect to see this spring and summer,” he said.

Bill Rastetter, attorney for Grand Traverse Band, says the band has filed a brief alongside three other tribes, the state and the federal government contesting the validity of the appeal by the Coalition to Protect Michigan Resources, the sport fishing group.

Boaters and fishers can read the decree, plus find updated maps and GPS coordinates here.

Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.